Friday, October 23, 2009

Saving the "Moon Tree"

Staff from the Independence National Historical Park are worried that the "Bicentennial moon tree," planted in Washington Square from seeds carried to the moon, may not last through the winter.

I've always been intrigued by this tree (and monument), a remnant of the Bicentennial celebrations of 1975-76.

Apparently, Philly was just one of many recipients of a moon tree, all planted from a single batch of 400 seeds that accompanied NASA astronaut Stuart Roosa on a mission in 1971. NASA does not have an official list of all the moon trees, but you can find a running list here. NASA also has a page about our Washington Square moon tree, including a flyer, newspaper clipping, and photos from the 1975 dedication.

But as the Daily News reported yesterday, Philly's tree is in rough shape.

The National Park Service is hoping to save at least a part of the tree, by taking about 20 cuttings from the tree for cloning.

So is a cloned moon tree as authentic as the original, or is it a replica of an original? How do you draw the line between original artifacts and copies when dealing with living organisms?

According to this Cornell site for kids (about my level of biology expertise), trees can be cloned either by grafting a cutting from the parent tree onto another tree's rootstock, or by encouraging the cutting to grow its own roots. That sounds like the cloned tree would be an authentic stand-in for the original, rather than a replica. The cutting from the original tree simply continues to grow until it becomes tree-sized.

If only non-living objects or the built environment could regenerate themselves if they became harmed.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Neighborhood Transformation

Can reclaiming history help rejuvenate a neighborhood?

The Inquirer wrote a rather glowing article earlier this week about how some dedicated Quakers reclaimed and rejuvenated the historic Fair Hill Burial Ground near N. 9th Street and W. Indiana Avenue over the last 16 years, and how neighbors have helped transform the surrounding blocks right alongside it.

The Inquirer reports, the "'badlands' aren't so bad anymore."


Even the blog Uwishunu, run by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, highlighted the site's fall cleanup event planned for Saturday, and linked to a Flickr set of bucolic photos of the burial ground it posted last year.

Really? The official tourism folks are recommending that people visit North Philly? What a refreshing change.

In the 1980s and 90s, the area around the burial ground was a notorious drug market in Philadelphia.

Most of the (white) Quakers had moved away by the 1960s, and by 1980, even the burial ground had fallen out of use. The Quakers sold their 1883 meetinghouse and burial ground to a Baptist church in 1985.

The 4.5-acre burial ground was essentially abandoned, except by the drug dealers. Some neighbors apparently thought the site, with its low grave markers and looping paths, was a pet cemetery.

However, underneath the overgrown weeds rested prominent 19th century abolitionists like Robert Purvis (1810-1898), a wealthy African American known as the "president of the Underground Railroad." Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), known for her antislavery and women's rights activism, is also buried at Fair Hill.

A biographer of Mott's, Margaret Hope Bacon, "rediscovered" the burial ground in the 1980s, and rallied fellow Quakers to buy back the burial ground in 1993. Meanwhile, resident Peaches Ramos rallied neighbors to reclaim the streets.

After $1 million of investment and years of volunteer efforts, Fair Hill Burial Ground is cleaner, safer, and host to gardening and educational programs. The neighborhood is safer too.

Is it a coincidence that the neighborhood's and the burial ground's fates appear intertwined? Put another way: would neighbors have rallied in the same way for a restored pet cemetery?

I doubt it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Community History

Penn staff and students have launched an impressive new(ish) resource called the West Philadelphia Community History Center.

I attended a lecture a couple weeks ago to hear more about the site from co-creators Walter Licht, a history professor, and Mark Lloyd, director of the University Archives. They hope the site will be especially useful to Penn students and K-12 students and teachers, but I can see plenty of community uses as well.

Licht knew first-hand that his Penn students perpetually knew little about their new neighborhood. Inspired by the extensive collection of West Philly ephemera donated to the University Archives by the family of Ruth Branning Molloy (Licht's friend and neighbor), Licht and Lloyd decided to create an online clearinghouse for West Philly history.

The site launched earlier this year with much help and effort from other University Archives staff and students from a class last spring.

So far, they've written a history of West Philly from pre-history through 1907, and individual neighborhood histories for eight smaller neighborhoods within West Philly. They've also linked to more than a dozen historical maps and posted census statistics, a detailed bibliography, and West-Philly-centric curriculum guides for K-12 teachers.

I'll be interested to see their next steps on this site. Only time will tell how / whether this site will connect with other online Philly history sites that are popping up, like Phillyhistory.org, the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network, or the PhilaPlace site that the Historical Society of Pennsylvania plans to launch this fall.


UPDATE: This post corrects the provenance of the Ruth Branning Malloy collection.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Everyone's a Curator

Apparently, curators are not just in museums these days.

The New York Times reports that all kinds of creative types have embraced the word "curate" to describe their selective editing activities. From swap-meets to nightclubs to stores, curators are now in charge.

The linguists say "it's an innocent form of self-inflation," but people using the term say that it "precisely describes" their work. The one museum curator quoted in the story says she doesn't mind the title creep.

I don't really mind it either. But the article is a good reminder: if everyone's a curator nowadays, we need to remember to explain the worth of having professional curators around.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Re-enacting Revolutionary Germantown

Here are some pictures from yesterday's 12 noon battle re-enactment at the Revolutionary Germantown festival. When I got there, the re-enactors were battling it out on Germantown Avenue, in front of Cliveden.


You can't quite tell from this shot, but two women soldiers (the only women re-enactors I noticed) were among those operating the cannon.


A bystander near me told us onlookers that these are Hessian soldiers.


Someone left his or her bicycle and helmet in a very inconvenient battle location. Meanwhile, just outside the photo (and battle), a neighbor was getting a new refrigerator delivered in the midst of musket- and cannon-fire.